Furniture in general use must be polished to seal the pores of the wood, protect the surfaces, accentuate and enhance the beauty of the figure, create highlights and provide as much resistance against heat or spilt liquids as possible. Earliest polishing materials dating back to the time of the Pharaohs were probably nut, poppy and linseed oils, gums, resins, etc., and it was not until 1820 that the familiar french polish was introduced into England from France. Prior to that Evelyn's Diary refers to the practice of 'Joyners' laying walnut boards in an oven or warm stable, and when the furniture was completed polishing it over 'with its own oyl, very hot, which makes it look sleek and black', while Sheraton advocated using a mixture of soft wax and turpentine. (Furniture was originally made by carpenters and later by joiners who were given exclusive entitlement in 1632 to 'make all kinds of furniture, mortice, tenoned, dowelled and pinned, glued but not nailed together . . .'. Later specialization produced the cabinet-maker exclusively concerned with furniture). Favourite materials for cabinet-makers of that period were linseed oil for furniture, stained with alkanet root (which yields a permanent red dye) and mixed with brick-dust to produce a polishing putty under the polishing cloth; and hard wax (beeswax, turpentine, copal varnish and yellow ochre) for chairs. Modern practice uses a plethora of materials, natural and synthetic, whose aim it is to hasten, cheapen and give added protection, all of which is achieved to a very marked degree.
It is very doubtful, however, whether any modern method can match the old processes for sheer beauty, for the secret lay in the patient hand-rubbing over long periods whereby the polish was forced into the pores of the wood, and not applied merely as a surface coating.
Was this article helpful?